New schedule will shave months off construction of navy support vessel: Shipyard

OTTAWA — The Vancouver shipyard building the navy's new support ships says the decision to push one of those vessels to the front of the construction queue will shave months, rather than years, off its expected delivery date.

The federal government revealed this week that Seaspan Marine will finish work on the first of two support ships before turning to a new oceanographic-science vessel for the coast guard, which was originally slated to be built first.

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That design work on the coast guard ship is taking longer than expected and changing the schedule will save money and time in the long run, Seaspan's vice-president of government relations Tim Page said Wednesday.

But anyone expecting the support ship to be delivered overnight will be disappointed as Page says the shipyard's new schedule has it hitting the water in 2022, and it will still need to undergo testing at sea.

Prior to the new schedule, the Defence Department's head of procurement said he expected the vessel, which is based on a German design, to be delivered and ready for naval operations by mid-2023.

"We have in our schedule a 2022 launch, and then the question is: How long will we be in tests and trials before delivery of that first ship?" Page told The Canadian Press. "And that depends on how well the testing-trial period goes, which in part depends on how the ship has been built and how it's performing. And the navy's appetite to receive that vessel."

Asked why it will take so long to finish the support ship, particularly since preliminary work started last June, Page noted that some design work still needs to be done and that the assessment is based on the experiences of other shipyards.

As for the coast guard's new science ship, Page says the time gained by pushing it back in the queue will be used to perfect its design while the new schedule will mean lessons learned from the first support ship will be applied to the second.

That vessel will be built after the oceanographic science ship, which will eventually replace the 56-year-old CCGS Hudson.

The support ships are expected to cost a combined $3.4 billion.

The two naval support ships and Canadian Coast Guard's oceanographic science vessel are among seven ships the government has asked Seaspan to build through a multibillion-dollar national shipbuilding plan.

Yet the shipyard has struggled to stay on schedule and keep costs under control; for example, it is still working on three fisheries-science vessels for the coast guard that were supposed to have been delivered by 2018.

Internal briefing notes for Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough obtained by through the access-to-information law indicated last year that Seaspan was facing a loss on those three fisheries vessels, which Page confirmed.

Asked why Canadians should have any confidence in the new timeline for the support ships, the first of which was supposed to have been delivered this year, Page said Seaspan had made several changes at the shipyard.

That included bringing in a new management team — the previous leadership was swept out last year — and hiring the main engineer who designed the original German version of the support ships.

At the same time, Page said Seaspan has invested $200 million of its own money into the Vancouver shipyard and is now looking for assurances that the government will provide it more work after the first seven vessels are finished.

"We didn't invest $200 million in order to build seven vessels, four of which are prototypes," he said. "We invested for the promise of 20 to 30 years of shipbuilding work, which is the principle on which the national shipbuilding strategy was founded. So we're in this for the long-term."

Seaspan's numerous struggles have opened it up to attacks from Quebec rival Davie Shipbuilding, which is currently leasing a converted civilian container ship to the navy as a temporary support vessel, for $700 million over five years.

Davie, which was left out of the shipbuilding strategy, says Ottawa needs to lease a second temporary support ship for $500 million because Seaspan's record means the government can't rely on it to deliver on time.

Davie, with backing from the Quebec government and others, also wants the government to re-open the shipbuilding strategy and parcel out some of the work that was originally directed at Seaspan.

Page noted Seaspan has been asked to build four different types of ships under the strategy, each of which has its own challenges and complexities.

Those include the three fisheries-science vessels, the oceanographic-science vessel, a heavy icebreaker for the coast guard and the two naval support ships.

By way of comparison, Halifax-based Irving Shipbuilding is building two types of vessels, albeit more of them: six Arctic patrol vessels and 15 warships that will eventually replace the navy's 12 frigates and three retired destroyers.

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

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